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Newsline - March 22, 2001




U.S. EXPELS 51 RUSSIAN EMBASSY OFFICERS

The U.S. said on 21 March that it expelled six employees of the Russian Embassy in Washington for suspected involvement in spying and ordered 45 more home by this summer to reduce the Russian Embassy staff in Washington to the same size as that of the American Embassy in Moscow, Western agencies reported on 22 March. Earlier, Russian officials indicated that Moscow would respond in an "adequate and proportionate" way to any American expulsions, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, former Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Kovalev told Interfax that this entire situation was organized by those who oppose "the development of normal relations between our countries." PG

MOSCOW CRITICIZES U.S. PLANS TO MEET CHECHEN FOREIGN MINISTER

Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov expressed surprise and regret on 21 March in reaction to a statement by Mark Grossman, who has been nominated to be undersecretary for policy at the U.S. State Department, that Washington intends to have an assistant secretary of state meet with Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, Russian agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). Meanwhile, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii denounced the plan as "absolutely unacceptable" to Moscow, said it "could not fail to have a negative impact on Russian-American relations," and promised that Moscow's reaction "will be adequate." Other Russian officials and politicians echoed this line. Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev even called on Russian prosecutors to seek the extradition of Akhmadov to Russia on suspicion of criminal activity, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

PUTIN SAYS NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE HAD NO BASIS

In an interview with four Moscow newspapers that was to be published on 22 March but was reported by Russian agencies the day before, President Vladimir Putin said there were no real reasons for the no- confidence vote in the government to take place. Putin also said that the country's brain-drain cannot be stopped by force, but only by creating more attractive conditions within Russia itself; that he will continue to oversee the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya and work toward creating a professional army throughout his term; and that he opposes a "shock therapy" approach to reforms. Putin said that Russia will pay all its debts consistent with meeting its obligations to the Russian people; that a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush will take place, but only after careful preparation; that the international community must support Macedonia against the Albanian insurgents; and that at some future point public and political associations may be able to nominate candidates for the presidency of Russia. PG

PUTIN SPEECH SAID TO FOCUS ON FEDERATION AFFAIRS

A Kremlin source told Russian agencies on 21 March that President Putin will deliver his annual message to the parliament on 3 April. Interfax said Kremlin officials have indicated that Putin will discuss reducing the number of the subjects of the federation by combining several of them through mutual agreements, rather than amending the constitution. PG

PUTIN DECIDES WHO'S ON STATE COUNCIL PRESIDIUM

An unnamed source in the presidential administration told Interfax on 21 March that President Putin personally decides which members of the State Council will serve on the presidium of that body. The source said that Putin's aides prepare a list of those council members who are unlikely to leave office in the immediate future and of those who are not too directly connected with the Kasyanov government. Putin then chooses among the remainder, the source said. PG

WILL DEFENSE MINISTER CONTINUE IN OFFICE?

"Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 March that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who will celebrate his 63rd birthday next month, has asked President Putin to allow him to continue serving in the military for an additional year, although he has already passed the age for mandatory retirement. Such an extension is needed to allow Sergeev to continue serving as defense minister. Officials at the Defense Ministry told Interfax the same day that they could not confirm whether Putin has granted the extension. Sergeev's term of military service has already been extended three times. PG

HARMONIZATION SAID ALMOST COMPLETE

Justice Minister Yuri Chaika on 21 March said that the harmonization of regional and federal legislation has improved significantly over the last few weeks, Interfax reported. He said his ministry has checked almost 6,000 regional acts and found only 359 which present a problem. In 1999, he said, almost one-third of all regional acts contradicted the Russian constitution and federal laws. Now, the number has been reduced to only a few, Chaika said. And as a result, it is possible to say that "an effective, constantly acting state mechanism of guaranteeing the unity of the legal space of the Russian Federation has been established." PG

DUMA APPROVES SALE OF NON-AGRICULTURAL LAND

On 21 March, the Duma in both the second and third readings approved amendments to the civil code allowing the sale of non-agricultural land, Russian agencies reported. The votes were 254 for, 121 against on the second reading, and 252 for, 123 against on the third and final reading. The Duma also approved in the second reading a measure to liberalize laws governing hard currency exchanges, called for elections this year for the Russia-Belarus Union parliament, and approved in the first reading a law that would allow the Interior Ministry to appoint local representatives without the approval of local officials. Meanwhile, 58 deputies formed a new interfactional group called "Volga-Ural" to promote the interests of that region, Interfax reported. PG

POLL SHOWS UNITY LEADING COMMUNISTS

A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation and reported by Interfax on 21 March found that 33 percent of those questioned support the pro-Kremlin Unity Party, while only 23 percent support the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. PG

DEFENSE INDUSTRY REORGANIZATION OUTLINED

Leonid Safronov, the deputy minister of industry, science and technology, outlined the measures the State Council is expected to approve on the reorganization of the 6,600 defense enterprises into 36 complexes, Interfax reported. Safronov said the changeover will last seven years and require approximately 3.3 billion rubles ($120 million) each year. Meanwhile, President Putin called for the expansion of state control over arms exports to increase earnings in the sector, Russian agencies reported. Last year, Russian sales from foreign military-technical cooperation agreements earned Moscow $2.84 billion, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

BORODIN NOT RELEASED ON BAIL

U.S. Federal District Judge Eugene Nickerson on 21 March refused to release Russia-Belarus Union Secretary of State Pavel Borodin on bail, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, Borodin, who is being held on an extradition request from Swiss prosecutors, told Interfax that he is suffering from heart problems and high blood pressure. PG

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS WEST'S ATTITUDE TOWARD ALBANIANS FUELING CONFLICT IN MACEDONIA

Speaking in Skopje on 21 March, Igor Ivanov said that the West's tolerance of the actions of Albanian rebels has helped fuel the conflict in Macedonia, Reuters reported. He called for concerted international action in support of Macedonia and the disarming of the rebels, and proposed the signing of an accord, under which each Balkan state pledged noninterference in the affairs of all the others, Russian agencies reported the same day. PG

MACEDONIAN EVENTS COMPARED TO CHECHNYA

Speaking in Paris, Russian Security Council Secretary Ivanov said "the events in Macedonia remind us of Chechnya's aggression against Daghestan in 1999," ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. (That view was echoed in an article in "Izvestiya" on the same day, which argued that the situation in the Balkans will help everyone understand "how events could have developed in the south of Russia if the Kremlin had conducted itself differently a year and a half ago.") In other comments during his Paris visit, Ivanov said he and his French interlocutors agreed that Afghanistan is the major source of terrorism in the world. He also said that Moscow will not accept any ultimatums by Washington concerning its involvement with Iran, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. But a report in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on the same day said Russian firms are failing to respond to Iranian proposals and thus losing out to firms from other countries. PG

GERMANY WON'T TAKE LEAD ON KALININGRAD

The European Union as a whole, rather than Germany, will address the problem of making Kaliningrad into a bridge between the EU and Russia, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in an interview published on 21 March in "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Schroeder also said that President Putin has "a serious vision of the future of Russia and that it is very important that he considers Russia part of the old Christian world." PG

KHRISTENKO DETAILS 8 BILLION RUBLE PROGRAM FOR CHECHNYA

Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko told the Duma on 21 March that the Russian government has developed an 8 billion ruble ($300 million) program for starting the process of rebuilding Chechnya this year, Russian agencies reported. He said the government will finance 2.5 billion rubles of the total with the rest coming from other sources. Last month, Khristenko said 14 billion rubles would be spent on reconstruction this year. PG

MIXED ECONOMIC REPORTS

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on 21 March that his government has decided to work to improve tax and licensing conditions for small businesses and also to offer them special loans and credits, Interfax reported. Kasyanov noted that half of all such businesses are located in only eight of the subjects of the federation and that they remain concentrated in the service sector. The State Statistics Committee on 21 March reported that the total number of unemployed stood at 6.85 million as of 1 March, 20.1 percent lower than on the same date one year ago, Interfax reported. But the committee also reported that during February, the amount of unpaid back wages increased by 3.8 percent over the previous month to a total of 33.49 billion rubles ($1.2 billion), the news agency said. It also reported that inflation for consumer goods rose 5.1 percent during the first two months of 2001. PG

DISEASE RAMPANT IN RUSSIAN PRISONS

Justice Minister Chaika on 21 March said that there are approximately 15,000 HIV infected people in Russian prisons, twice the number of a year ago, Interfax reported. Chaika said approximately 100,000 prisoners -- more than 10 percent of the total prison population -- suffer from tuberculosis, despite the success of international organizations like Doctors Without Frontiers in treating prisoners last year. PG

A MIXED DEMOGRAPHIC PICTURE

An article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 March described Russia's demographic situation as one of "collapse," noting the growth rate of the population fell from 1999 to 2000 while infant mortality, diseases like tuberculosis, and deaths from alcoholism and murders rose over the same period. But the State Statistics Committee on the same day suggested that by some measures, the situation may be slightly better. It noted that 13.5 percent more children were born in January 2001 than during the same month one year ago, although deaths increased 6.8 percent year on year. In January 2001, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births by 2.0 times, down from the 2.1 times in January 2000. PG

FOSTER HOME SYSTEM APPROVED

Prime Minister Kasyanov on 21 March approved a new system that will allow the creation of "children's homes of a family type," a new system that will allow individual families to take in five to 10 orphans or abandoned children, Russian agencies reported. PG

MIGRATION SERVICE READY TO DEPORT ILLEGALS

Aleksandr Blokhin, the minister for federation affairs and national and migration policy, said on 21 March that the government has allocated 15 million rubles ($500,000) to deport people who are in Russia illegally, Russian agencies reported. PG

ORTHODOX CHURCH SEEKS GOVERNMENT SUPPORT...

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad told Interfax on 21 March that the church would like to see part of the taxes of Russian citizens transferred to the church to support its social services. He said that the Russian Orthodox Church is the only Orthodox church in the world that does not receive state support. He also noted that foreign missionaries are now spending $150 million a year in Russia, five times as much as the Russian Orthodox Church's total budget. PG

...BUT ENVOY WARNS AGAINST POLITICAL USE OF CHURCH

Georgii Poltavchenko, the presidential envoy to the Central federal district, said on 21 March that it is impermissible for gubernatorial candidates to try to exploit the authority of the church or use church hierarchs for their own political goals, Interfax reported. PG

KREMLIN CHANGES RABBIS

Chief Rabbi Adolf Shaevich told Interfax on 21 March that he considers the Kremlin's decision to drop him from the presidential Council on Relations with Religious Organizations to be a form of "interference" in Jewish affairs. But he said he had expected it because "once the Kremlin had established for itself a Jewish structure, then it was naturally necessary to have a new chief rabbi." Shaevich said he would never accept a foreign rabbi like Berl Lazar, who heads the Kremlin-backed Federation of Jewish Communities, as entirely legitimate, even though Lazar became a Russian citizen "less than a year ago." Shaevich noted that 23 of the 25 rabbis associated with Lazar "do not have Russian citizenship." PG

MIR PASSES POINT OF NO RETURN

The orbit of the Mir spacecraft on 21 March fell to the point of no return, Russian space officials told Russian and Western agencies. But a poll showed that only 27 percent of Russians are happy about the deorbiting of the Russian craft, now set for 23 March, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, the agency said, Russian and American space officials are near a compromise that would allow the first space tourist, American millionaire Dennis Tito, to go to the International Space Station later this year. PG

PUTIN PRIZES PROPOSED

Nikita Mikhalkov, the head of the Union of Cinematographers, said that his organization intends to ask President Putin to create an annual presidential prize for the best work by a new director, Interfax reported on 21 March. Meanwhile, an article in "Izvestiya" on the same day said that members of the cabinet are going out of their way to praise Prime Minister Kasyanov and all his works. And in an indication that Putin is interested in helping his native city, the Federal Protection Service has agreed that the Herzen Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg will now train officers for that service, Interfax-Northwest reported on 21 March. PG

THE GREENING OF MOSCOW

Leonid Bochin, who heads the Moscow city department on the environment, said in the Russian capital on 21 March that the city has reduced harmful emissions from cars and industries by more than 160,000 tons from 1999 to 2000 and that his office will plant approximately 70,000 trees to green the capital, Interfax reported. PG

PUTIN'S TRAFFIC GUARDS MAKING PEOPLE LATE FOR WORK

Duma deputy (Union of Rightist Forces) Sergei Yushenkov told the parliament on 21 March that the Federal Protection Service that guards the route taken by President Putin to and from work is acting incorrectly by taking up positions so early, "for half hour and more as a result of which people are delayed in getting to work," Interfax reported. PG

BOOKMEN BAND TOGETHER TO FIGHT BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD

More than 50 Russian publishers and book dealers have formed the Russian Book Union in order to fight for the restoration of tax advantages that had allowed them to sell books at a reasonable price, "Nezavisimaya gazeta-ExLibris" reported on 21 March. One of the organizers said that if the bookmen fail in their attempt, then Russia will soon fall under "the power of Beavis and Butthead," two MTV cartoon characters known for their crudeness and ignorance. PG

CORRECTION:

Because of an error in the original Russian source, the organization responsible for a new report on anti-Semitism in Russia was incorrectly given in yesterday's "RFE/RL Newsline." The organization responsible is the U.S.-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

OLIGARCH/GOVERNOR TO ASSIST LOCAL VOTERS AND MOSCOW CONSTRUCTION FIRMS

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich is planning on spending 3 billion rubles ($105 million) of his own personal funds for housing construction and repair work in the okrug, Leonid Krasnyanskii, the head of the extrabudgetary policy and construction department for the city of Moscow, announced on 20 March, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. Moscow construction firms will perform the labor, and a plan for their work has been submitted to Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who will review it. The firms will repair homes as well as build heat and electricity stations, two schools, two kindergartens, a hotel, and a trade center. According to the daily, the Moscow office of Chukotka Okrug confirmed that Abramovich appealed to the Moscow city government for help in organizing the construction work. JAC

TATARSTAN PUNTS CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION TO HIGHEST COURT...

The Tatarstan Supreme Court stopped court proceedings on 20 March in a suit filed by Deputy Prosecutor General for the Volga federal district Aleksandr Zyaginstev seeking the repeal of some 40 articles in the republic's constitution, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 21 March. Tatarstan Supreme Court Judge Lilia Khamzina based her decision on an earlier resolution of the federal Constitutional Court that only constitutional courts can rule on the constitutions of Russian federation subjects. That resolution was taken by the Constitutional Court on 8 February 2001 over an action the head of the Karelia Republic took with regard to that republic's constitution, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 March. JAC

...AS MORE ENDORSEMENTS FLOW IN FOR SHAIMIEV

During the lead-up to Tatarstan's 25 March presidential elections, more of Russia's leading political figures are expressing their support for incumbent President Mintimer Shaimiev. According to RFE/RL's Kazan bureau on 21 March, Unity leader and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu called on local voters to support Shaimiev. Earlier in the month, Shoigu called Shaimiev "a politician of federal stature and one of the brightest figures on the Russian Federation's political horizon" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 10 March 2001). The local branch of Moscow Mayor Luzhkov's Fatherland party also announced its support for Shaimiev. Meanwhile, Shaimiev announced on 20 March that he will not participate in any televised debates with his competitors "because there is nothing constructive in that and dirty techniques are used." Tatarstan media suggested that Shaimiev was referring to claims by Duma deputy (Communist) Sergei Shashurin that Shaimiev had embezzled some $900 million in revenue and introduced family clan rule. JAC

TOMSK UTILITY TO TURN OFF LIGHTS ON FEDERAL DEADBEATS

Tomskenergo announced on 21 March that it will start to limit electricity supplies to local institutions financed by federal ministries such as the Defense, Justice, Interior, and Education ministries, Interfax-Eurasia reported. The total debt owed by these organizations has reached 8 million rubles ($279,000), according to the utility. Earlier in the month, the oblast's local prosecutor, Yurii Sukhoplyuev, announced that he was prepared to launch criminal proceedings against the head of Tomskenergo over the decision to turn off electricity and heat to deadbeat customers (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2001). JAC

KHATTAB DENIES ROLE IN HIJACKING

Radical Chechen field commander Khattab has rejected Russian Federal Security Service official Vladimir Pronichev's claim that his men were responsible for last week's hijacking of a Russian charter aircraft from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, Glasnost-North Caucasus reported on 21 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2001). "I would not send my people to hijack a plane armed [only] with knives," the agency quoted him as saying. LF

MORE SHOOTING VICTIMS IN GROZNY

The number of bodies discovered in Grozny's Lenin Raion with bullet wounds to the head has risen to 12, the head of the Russian Interior Ministry's Chechen office, Colonel Akhmed Dakaev, told Interfax on 21 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). Dakaev said the victims may all have been killed by a criminal gang that specializes in robbery of the most vulnerable members of the population. The first victims discovered included elderly Russian women. Also on 21 March, Russian Human Rights Commissioner for Chechnya Vladimir Kalamanov predicted that more mass burial sites are likely to be discovered in Grozny, Interfax reported. He called upon the media to exercise restraint in reporting such discoveries. Reports of the mass grave unearthed in Grozny last month gave widely diverging figures of the number of bodies it contained (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2001). LF




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR GREATER INTERNATIONAL ROLE IN KARABAKH MEDIATION...

Addressing students at a Yerevan business school on 21 March, President Robert Kocharian said international mediators should take the leading role in the search for an acceptable solution to the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He admitted that while he and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev have during their face-to-face meetings over the past two years come to understand each other's concerns quite well, major points of disagreement between them remain and the prospects of making further progress in such talks are minimal. Kocharian said that the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in mediating a solution of the conflict "have a much better understanding...of the framework within which it is possible to find a compromise solution." He characterized attitudes in Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku as "fairly favorable," and said that his talks with Aliyev and Minsk Group officials in Key West early next month may be followed by a similar round of talks in Moscow. Kocharian also stressed that Armenia has no intention of starting a new war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh as "he who begins a war loses," according to Interfax. LF

...AS DOES HIS AZERBAIJANI COUNTERPART

Also on 21 March, President Aliyev similarly said at a meeting in Baku with U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson that international mediation efforts should be intensified in order "to end everything peacefully," AP and Interfax reported. But in an address the same day at a celebration to mark the Novruz spring holiday, Aliyev said that if efforts to reach a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict fail, "the Azerbaijani people will display all their strength and power and liberate occupied Azerbaijani lands by military means." "We will never support a peace settlement that does not meet Azerbaijan's national interests," Aliyev added. LF

UN HAILS ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN ACCORD...

In a statement issued in New York on 21 March, the UN Security Council expressed its approval of the confidence-building measures and nonaggression pledge adopted during the 15-16 March Yalta talks between Abkhaz and Georgian government delegations, Reuters and AP reported. But at the same time, the council condemned as "illegitimate and unhelpful" the local elections held in Abkhazia on 10 March. Also on 21 March, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told a visiting German Bundestag delegation that it is impossible to resolve the conflict in such a way that Georgia's territorial integrity is preserved, ITAR-TASS reported. Both the central Georgian government and the international community argue that a settlement should bestow on Abkhazia broad autonomy within a single Georgian state. LF

...AS LAND MINE EXPLOSION CLAIMS MORE VICTIMS

The driver was killed and two passengers seriously injured on 21 March when a bus ran over a land mine near the village of Khurcha in western Georgia, close to the internal border with Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. The Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Security Ministry in exile blamed the incident on Abkhaz militants who it claimed laid the mine the previous evening in retaliation for a 18 March attack on five Abkhaz police officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2001). LF

FBI DIRECTOR VISITS GEORGIA

Louis Freeh held talks in Tbilisi on 21 March with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, Prosecutor-General Gia Meparishvili, and National Security Council Director Nugzar Sadjaya, Caucasus Press reported. Freeh told journalists after those talks that the FBI plans to open a permanent office in Georgia in order to make bilateral cooperation, especially in combating drug-trafficking and international terrorism, more effective. Freeh said he is impressed by Georgia's anticorruption program and hailed the Georgian government's reform of the judiciary and the Prosecutor-General's Office, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT ADOPTS LAW ON REPATRIATION OF CAPITAL

The Senate (the upper chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament) on 21 March referred back to the Mazhilis (the lower chamber) the bill allowing the repatriation of capital illegally transferred to foreign bank accounts, after dropping the amendment proposed to that bill by the Mazhilis that would have imposed a tax of up to 12 percent on capital returned to Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 March 2001). The Mazhilis approved the revised draft the same day. Interfax on 21 March quoted Kazakhstan's Finance Ministry as estimating the total capital in question at up to $500 million. LF

KAZAKH MINISTER CHIDES INTERNATIONAL CONSORTIUM

First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov on 20 March took to task the international consortium developing the country's huge Karachaganak gas field, accusing it of violating the law by failing to employ the agreed number of Kazakh contractors in the metallurgy and services sectors, the "Wall Street Journal" and Interfax reported. Akhmetov added that the Kazakh government "cannot tolerate" that situation and "will take all possible measures" to ensure compliance by the consortium with its commitments and with the country's laws. But consortium General Director John Morrow explained that frequently Kazakh companies fail to participate in tenders for supplies and services because they are unequipped to undertake such work. LF

ISLAMISTS IN SOUTHERN KYRGYZSTAN AGAIN CALL FOR CALIPHATE

On the eve of the Nooruz spring holiday, members of the unregistered Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir party pasted hundreds of leaflets on walls in the Sputnik raion of the southern town of Djalalabad, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 21 March. The leaflets called for the overthrow of the Kyrgyz authorities and establishing a caliphate in Central Asia. The leaflets were in the Kyrgyz language, but a note said they were printed in Jordan. LF

TURKMEN RELIGIOUS ACTIVIST SENT BACK FROM HOSPITAL TO PRISON CAMP

Baptist Shageldy Atakov was sent back to the Seydy labor camp in northeastern Turkmenistan on 1 March, just weeks after being hospitalized, and has been placed in a punishment cell, Keston News Service reported on 21 March. Atakov is serving a four-year sentence on charges of deception. A senior Turkmen official denied last month Amnesty International's claims that Atakov has been forcibly treated with psychotropic drugs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 28 February 2001). LF




BELARUS SAID TO BE IN 'STAGE OF SURVIVAL'

Yury Sivakou, deputy head of the presidential administration staff, told the opposition newspaper "Narodnaya volya" on 22 March that Belarus today Belarus is "not in a stage of development but in a stage of survival." Sivakou noted, however, that Belarus's survival course is a "stable process." He admitted that young people are rather reluctant to fill the ranks of government leaders and officials. According to Sivakou, one reason for this reluctance is low salaries. He said department heads in the presidential administration are paid only some $100 monthly. JM

BELARUS-RUSSIA UNION SAID TO BE 'PRIMARILY ECONOMIC'

Stanislau Knyazeu, deputy state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, told journalists on 21 March that the Belarus-Russia Union "is pursuing primarily economic goals and is not a military union," Interfax reported. "At issue [in the union] is a certain unification of efforts to defend our airspace," he said. Knyazeu was commenting on a newly drafted concept of Belarus's national security. He noted that Belarus's strategic interest is, as before, to preserve the country's sovereignty. JM

UKRAINIAN NATIONALIST LEADER DETAINED

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on 21 March detained Andriy Shkil, leader of the nationalist Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), Interfax reported. The SBU said in a statement that Shkil was detained as a suspect in connection with an investigation into the 9 March violent demonstrations in Kyiv (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2001). Ukrainian media reported previously that UNA-UNSO members were active participants in the 9 March clashes with police, in which some 50 people were injured. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PROLONGS SUSPENSE OVER INTERIOR MINISTER'S FATE...

Leonid Kuchma on 21 March said he has not signed a decree to sack Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, as alleged earlier by some politicians and media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 March 2001). Asked if he intended to sign, Kuchma answered: "Follow what's in the press." JM

...ASKS FOREIGN EXPERTS TO RE-EXAMINE HEADLESS CORPSE...

President Kuchma also said Ukraine has asked the U.S., Germany, and Russia to conduct a new expert analysis of the decapitated body that is believed to be that of missing journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. "Such a well-known case must be investigated in a more transparent manner and be more open to the public. Nobody should think that someone wants to hide something, because today it's impossible to conceal anything," AP quoted Kuchma as saying on 21 March. Kuchma's request came after German genetic experts questioned the identity of a body that was found near Kyiv and officially recognized as Gongadze's (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). JM

...AND DISAPPROVES OF NEW PARLIAMENTARY GROUP

President Kuchma criticized the recent formation of the Ukraine's Regions caucus in the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001), Interfax reported on 21 March. "This is yet another confirmation that a [parliamentary] election campaign has already started off," he noted, adding that this campaign will impair the efficiency of parliamentary work. JM

GAZPROM REPORTEDLY SUES UKRAINE FOR STOLEN GAS

Anatolii Podmyshalskii, Gazprom's representative in Ukraine, told Interfax on 21 March that Russia's gas monopoly has sued Ukraine in an international court in order to obtain compensation for 1.1 billion cubic meters of gas that Ukraine allegedly siphoned off in the first half of 2000. Podmyshalskii did not specify in which court the suit was filed. According to Podmyshalskii, Ukraine stole 8.8 billion cubic meters of Russian transit gas in the first six months of 2000 and has not stopped the practice of illegal gas siphoning since then. JM

ESTONIAN ECONOMY MINISTER ACCUSED OF LYING

State Procurements Board Director Ulo Sarv asserted that Mihkel Parnoja, who is also chairman of the supervisory council of the Privatization Agency, lied to get the board's approval for selecting the consultant for the privatization of Estonian Railway, ETA reported on 21 March. According to Sarv, Parnoja stated in January that all the consulting fee bids received for the railway privatization had to be rejected because they were too expensive, but a few months later approved the offer by the British consultancy firm GIBB Ltd. for 40 million kroons ($2.4 million) plus 4 percent commission. This was more than three times greater than the highest bid in January of 12 million kroons, which was made by the PricewaterHouseCoopers consultation firm. Parnoja told a press conference that the circumstances were different; in January only Estonian Railway would have financed the consultation fee, while later it was also cofinanced by the Privatization Agency. Parnoja also claimed that the contract with GIBB was confidential, and that he had no right to inform the State Procurements Board about the fee the firm had requested. The newspapers "Aripaev" and "Postimees" are calling for Parnoja to resign. SG

LATVIAN COURTS RULE REPEAT LOCAL ELECTIONS IN TWO DISTRICTS

The district courts of the counties of Bauska and Preili in separate decisions on 21 March annulled the results of the 11 March municipal elections in the Viesturi and Preili electoral districts, BNS reported. Bauska District Court Judge Inara Andzane ruled that 31 ballots from one of the ballot boxes in Viesturi were disputable because its election commission chairman had arbitrarily opened the ballot box, which contained an improperly stamped envelope, and mixed its content with the other ballots. In Preili, four unclear ballots were found that could have influenced the voting results. The judges decided that repeat elections will have to be held in the two districts. SG

RUSSIAN DUMA DEPUTIES VISIT LITHUANIA

Concluding a four-day visit on 21 March, delegation head (Unity) Aleksandr Chuyev rated it as highly successful, ELTA reported. He said the trip eliminated some controversies between the countries and laid the groundwork for a closer relationship before the upcoming visit of President Valdas Adamkus to Moscow at the end of this month. On 19 March, the delegation held talks in the parliament in which Chuyev assured its chairman, Arturas Paulauskas, that the Duma will ratify the Russia-Lithuania border treaty within two months. Paulauskas declared that the law adopted by the previous parliament demanding compensation from Russia for damage inflicted during the Soviet occupation will not be recalled, but revised to make it acceptable to both sides. The next day at the Lithuanian-Kaliningrad border post of Nemune-Sovetsk members of the Kaliningrad Duma, including its chairman Vladimir Nikitin, told the delegation that the quick ratification of the border treaty would benefit their region. The deputies also met with the local Russian community and visited a secondary school in Klaipeda. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT VETOES PROPERTY RESTITUTION BILL

Aleksander Kwasniewski on 22 March vetoed the property restitution bill that was passed by the parliament earlier this month following lengthy and controversial debates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2001). Kwasniewski's decision leaves Poland as the only former East Bloc country without legislation stipulating compensation for the property seized by the communist regime. Kwasniewski commented that the bill is flawed and would prove too costly for Poland. The parliament is unlikely to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to override the veto. JM

POLAND'S NATIONAL REMEMBRANCE INSTITUTE TO INVESTIGATE ANOTHER POGROM

Leon Kieres, head of the National Remembrance Institute, said on 21 March that he will soon order an investigation into a 1941 pogrom of Jews in Radzilowo, northeastern Poland, Polish Television reported. Several hundred Jews were murdered in Radzilowo on 7 June 1941, allegedly in a similar manner as 1,600 Jews in the nearby town of Jedwabne three days later. The inscription on a monument in Radzilowo says 800 Jews died there in 1941 at the hands of the fascists. The National Remembrance Institute is currently investigating the much-publicized case of the Jedwabne massacre (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 March 2001). JM

CZECHS DO NOT INTEND TO REINFORCE KFOR UNITS 'FOR NOW'

Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and Chief of Staff General Jiri Sedivy on 21 March said the Czech Republic does not intend to reinforce units participating in the KFOR mission in Kosova, CTK reported. Sedivy said in Warsaw that he can envisage a situation in which reinforcements would be considered "if tension spread," and added that the Czech army has a rapid reaction force that can be transferred to the area on short notice. Such a decision, however, would have to be "a political one," and meet with "a large consensus." It would also place on the army an additional financial burden that cannot be met from its present budget, he said. MS

ELECTION OF NEW CZECH RADIO AND TV COUNCIL LIKELY TO BE POSTPONED

Almost 200 proposals for nominations to the new Radio and Television Council have been submitted to the Chamber of Deputies, CTK reported on 21 March, citing the chairman of the chamber's special committee set up for the selection of candidates. Jan Vidim told the agency that the large number of proposals made is likely to postpone the appointment of the new council, which should have been completed in May. In line with a law passed by the chamber after the January crisis in Czech Television, the proposals are made by public and civic organizations. The committee must select 45 candidates and submit their names to the chamber, which is then to decide on the composition of the new 15-member council. MS

CZECH GOVERNMENT APPROVES 'EURO-AMENDMENT'...

The government on 21 March approved the so-called "Euro-amendment," which gives precedence to European legislation over Czech legislation and widens the powers of the Constitutional Court to oversee the implementation of this precedence. The draft law must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies and by the Senate. The bill defines the scale of legislation that will have priority over Czech laws and makes it obligatory for judges to give preference to these laws in the event that they find a contradiction between them and Czech legislation. MS

...AND COMPENSATION FOR DEPORTEES TO SOVIET CAMPS

The government also approved a bill drafted by deputies from the opposition Christian Democratic Party and Freedom Union, providing for compensation to be paid to Czechoslovak citizens deported to Soviet forced labor camps between 1944 and 1954 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2001). The cabinet added to the opposition-proposed bill two other groups that will be entitled to compensation, namely those who fought during World War II in the Czechoslovak army abroad and those who fought in the allied armies. MS

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL CRITICIZES CZECH POLICE

Amnesty International on 21 March accused Czech police of wrongly detaining and physically abusing many protesters during last year's Prague annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank, AP reported. It said its investigations since the September 2000 incidents reveal that some 850 people, mostly foreigners, were detained during the protests, and charges were pressed against only 19 of them. Police "detained not only those whom they suspected of violent offenses, but also many people engaged in peaceful demonstrations," the organization said. Amnesty also cited reports of ill-treatment of the detained and violation of their rights, including the right to choose a lawyer of their choice; to inform relatives or a third party of their whereabouts; to be informed of their rights in their own language; and to receive adequate medical treatment. MS

ANTI-HUNGARIAN VANDALISM SPREADS IN SLOVAKIA

Several buildings housing Hungarian and Hungarian-minority institutions were again vandalized on 21 March in Kosice, the Hungarian MTI agency reported on 22 March. Among the buildings marred when unknown perpetrators painted anti-Hungarian inscriptions on them was the Hungarian Consulate, which was inaugurated in 2000 by the two countries' premiers. Hungarian Consul Gyorgy Varga told the agency that he can only "regret" that Slovak Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner's reaction to the incidents one day earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001) was merely to deplore the acts and warn that many similar incidents can be expected "until the elections." Stressing that he is speaking "as a private person," Varga said Pittner's reaction, without pledging that the ministry would seek to discover the perpetrators, "is not acceptable." MS

ORBAN REFUSES TO DISMISS HUNGARIAN PHARE MINISTER

Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 21 March told Hungarian state radio that he will not sack Imre Boros from his post as Minister for Phare Funds, despite the demand by Independent Smallholders' Party Chairman Jozsef Torgyan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). Orban said he refuses to dismiss "a capable minister because of a party's internal strife," and stressed that he will not allow Smallholder infighting to influence the work of the government. Orban's fellow FIDESZ politicians said his veto constitutes "an open confrontation with Torgyan," but remarked that Torgyan's position has weakened in recent months, so he will not dare to risk resigning from the governing coalition, "Nepszabadsag" reports. MSZ

HUNGARY SUPPORTS MACEDONIA'S INTEGRITY

Hungary "firmly supports Macedonia's sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders," Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabor Horvath told reporters on 21 March. He said Hungary agrees with the endeavors of the international community to curtail the activities of "armed Albanian extremists." In related news, Hungarian Chief of Staff General Lajos Fodor said the Hungarian military leadership "is prepared for all eventualities" if another serious crisis develops in the region. MSZ

HUNGARY, SINGAPORE TO EXTEND BILATERAL TRADE

Visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban on 21 March agreed in Budapest to strengthen trade and cultural ties between the two countries. "Hungarians would like to look at Singapore as a gateway to Asia," Orban said, adding that "Singapore is right in assuming that Hungary will also be a gateway to Europe." Orban said the Hungarian Education Ministry will work out an exchange program between universities in the two countries. MSZ




MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT LAUNCHES OFFENSIVE

Macedonian forces in the Tetovo region have begun shelling the Kale district, which is held by the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK), dpa reported on 22 March. The UCK rejected a government ultimatum which expired at midnight (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). The guerrillas instead announced their own unilateral cease-fire. In recent days, there has been speculation in some Croatian and Serbian media about a possible mediating role for Croatian President Stipe Mesic in the conflict. PM

MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT, PARTIES AGREE ON PLATFORM

President Boris Trajkovski met in Skopje late on 21 March with representatives of the parties represented in the parliament, including the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD). Trajkovski then made a televised address, in which he said: "The President of the Republic Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, and the leaders of the parliamentary parties, call for the rapid and efficient neutralization of the armed group of extremists and in the sharpest terms condemn resorting to weapons to achieve political goals. It is necessary for the Army of the Republic of Macedonia to take control of the [Macedonian side of the] border and for KFOR to take measures for thorough control on the other side... After the conclusion of the operations to neutralize the armed groups of extremists, political dialogue should be intensified with all legitimate political parties to look into questions concerning interethnic relations and find responsible solutions," RFE/RL reported. PM

GUERRILLAS: WE HAVE BEEN PREPARING FOR TWO YEARS

UCK spokesman Sadri Ahmati told Vienna's "Die Presse" of 22 March in Selce that the guerrillas have been getting ready for a conflict for two years. The UCK's goal is "to free our entire [Albanian-populated] territory from the grip of the Macedonian security forces." There are several cities and towns in this territory, including Skopje, he added. Ahmati said that media outside Macedonia initially took over the "rhetoric" of the Macedonian government and called the fighters "terrorists." "But now everyone can see that we have the people's backing. Nobody can call someone a terrorist who has popular support." The traditional parties have lost popular backing, he added. Ahmati said that the guerrillas have 7,000 fighters who control an area populated by 4,000 civilians. The UCK "shoots only at uniforms" and does not care if the person in question is Macedonian or Albanian. Ahmati argued that his own weapon is Yugoslav-made and that the guerrillas do not get their weapons from Kosova. PM

UN SECURITY COUNCIL PASSES RESOLUTION ON MACEDONIA

The council approved a French resolution on 21 March which "strongly condemns extremist violence including terrorist activities" in Macedonia and southern Serbia. It appeals to the UCK to "lay down their weapons and return to their homes," Reuters reported. The text calls for a political dialogue between all "legitimate" parties, Deutsche Welle's Macedonian Service reported. The resolution appeals to NATO to better control the border between Kosova and Macedonia. The resolution does not explicitly say the violence is being exported from Kosova into Macedonia, as Skopje and Moscow claim. The text simply notes that the "violence has support from ethnic Albanian extremists outside these areas [of Macedonia] and constitutes a threat to the security and stability of the wider region." Articles in "Le Monde," "Die Welt," and the "Financial Times" note that the UCK has domestic Macedonian roots and cannot be eliminated in a quick military operation, the BBC's Serbian Service reported. PM

GERMAN FOREIGN MINISTER: THE ALBANIAN QUESTION IS OPEN

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 22 March that the Albanian question is "open" but the solution must come in a "European perspective." He stressed that "all responsible political leaders of the Albanians must decide whether they want to be a part of this region which is moving in the direction of Europe, or whether they want to stay on the sidelines." He added that "the international community will not permit any alteration of borders by force," and that proposals for a greater Albania will not win international support. PM

TURKISH PREMIER: BALKANS CANNOT ENDURE ANOTHER WAR

Speaking in Istanbul on 22 March, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said: "We hope that the Albanian guerrillas stop this negative operation as soon as possible. The Balkans cannot endure a new war," AP reported. The Turkish authorities have repeatedly expressed support for Macedonia's territorial integrity. PM

UNHCR: NUMBER OF MACEDONIAN REFUGEES ON THE RISE

UNHCR spokesman Chris Janowski told RFE/RL in Geneva on 21 March that "we have now close to 15,000 people [in or from Macedonia] who have moved in various directions, a lot of them within Macedonia itself, but also some people who have gone to Albania. Some people have gone to Turkey, some people have gone to southern Serbia. Some are headed via these countries to other countries -- Western Europe some of them, some of them to Bosnia and Croatia. So it's sort of a mixed picture. It is not really a very dramatic flight. It's basically people going to safer places to take themselves and their families out of harm's way to basically wait and see what happens" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). Janowski added that many of the up to 3,000 people who entered Albania have transited the Kukes region in order to get to Kosova. The Macedonian border with Kosova is closed. PM

PROTESTS GREET RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN ALBANIA

About 100 pro-UCK demonstrators gathered in Tirana on 21 March to protest the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2001). Ivanov had previously visited Serbia, Kosova, and Macedonia, where his rhetoric was regarded by many as anti-Albanian. After meeting with Ivanov, Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said that "the situation [in Macedonia] has reached the point where a great deal of caution is needed to prevent the conflict from turning into an ethnic conflict." Ivanov called on Albania to help find a peaceful solution to the crisis. Observers note that Russian Balkan policy, like former Soviet policy in the Middle East, is less than effective because it is widely seen in the region as completely partisan toward one side. Russia has little to offer its friends except rhetoric and arms sales, but it drives a hard bargain in its natural gas sales to Serbia. PM

MONTENEGRIN PARTY FORMS PRO-INDEPENDENCE COALITION

President Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has formed a coalition for the 22 April parliamentary elections with the pro-independence Social Democrats led by Zarko Rakcevic, "Vesti" reported from Podgorica on 22 March. The coalition's name will be Victory for Montenegro. DPS Deputy Chairman Svetozar Marovic will head his party's list. The Liberals, who favor independence, will not join the coalition. PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT ASKS GOVERNMENT TO 'RE-EXAMINE' CONTROVERSIAL ORDINANCE...

President Ion Iliescu on 21 March asked the government to "re-examine" a recently issued governmental ordinance that expands the prerogatives of the Interior Ministry's intelligence-gathering activities. The ordinance has been criticized by opposition parties and the media, which pointed out that the prerogatives granted by the ordinance to the ministry's Military Unit 0962 (also known as "Two-and-a quarter" under the unit's communist nickname), duplicate the activity of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Iliescu said some of this criticism is "justified" and that the ordinance should have first been examined by the Supreme Council on National Defense. The parliamentary commission overseeing the activity of the SRI on the same day said it "disagrees" with the ordinance's provisions, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS

...VETOES LAW ON FOREIGNERS' STATUS

Iliescu on 22 March asked the parliament to "re-examine" a law on the status of foreigners in Romania that has recently been approved by the parliament's two chambers, Mediafax reported. The president is objecting to a stipulation in the law that allows refugees to be expelled after a court of justice has turned down their asylum application, even if those affected have appealed against the court's decision. In line with constitutional procedure, the Senate must debate the presidential objections within 30 days. MS

SRI CHIEF ASKS ROMANIAN COMMISSION TO REFUTE ALLEGATIONS OF LINKS TO KGB

Radu Timofte, who was appointed SRI director in January, has asked the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) to clear him of allegations in the media that he had worked for the KGB, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The CNSAS on 22 March distanced itself from reports in the media, according to which Patriarch Teoctist had been a Securitate agent, Mediafax reported. The CNSAS said it has not completed the examination of files of the heads of recognized churches and that the information delivered to the media by one of its employees "dates prior to the setting up of the CNSAS." It also said the employee has "infringed on his civil servant status." MS

PREMIER SAYS ROMANIA 'DOES NOT NECESSARILY NEED IMF'

The government continued on 22 March to examine the draft budget for 2001. On 21 March, members of the IMF delegation visiting Bucharest said they object to the cabinet's intention to grant tax breaks to some state enterprises facing difficulties, considering those breaks to be "disguised subsidies" that would increase inflation. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, in an interview with AFP on 21 March, said Romania "does not necessarily need the IMF", but hopes to reach an agreement on a new standby loan with the international lending organization. MS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT'S POPULARITY INCREASES

A public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Marketing Analysis (IMAS) shows Premier Nastase is the country's most popular politician with the backing of 69 percent of respondents. Iliescu is in second place, with 64 percent, followed by Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, with 62 percent. A majority of respondents (56 percent) are of the opinion that the government is performing better than its predecessor. MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT VOICES STANCE ON 1990 EVENTS

President Ion Iliescu, visiting Calarasi county on 21 March, said in Oltenita that it was "not the miners who first resorted to violence in 1990." Iliescu said the first to have done so had been his then-political adversaries, who "had introduced violence in political confrontation." The president said it is only due to "the people's wisdom that we avoided a Yugoslav-like tragedy" at that stage. Iliescu also criticized the performance of the cabinets in office between 1996 and 2000, saying that "restructuring meant for them no more than layoffs" and that "privatization" had been turned into "primitive selling." He said those responsible for the "national pillage" during that period "must pay for their deeds." MS

PASTUKHOV MEETS VORONIN...

Party of Moldovan Communists Chairman Vladimir Voronin on 21 March told Boris Pastukhov, chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, that the dispute over the status of the Transdniester region is "useless," ITAR-TASS reported. Whether Moldova should be "a federation or a confederation," Voronin said, should be decided in the course of the negotiations. "A baby has to be born first and then we will agree on its name," he said. Voronin also said Moldova is prepared to offer Tiraspol "constructive alternatives" for solving the conflict. Pastukhov confirmed that Yevgenii Primakov, chairman of the Russian State Commission for the Transdniester settlement, will visit Moldova soon after the new president is elected. MS

...AND TRANSDNIESTER LEADERSHIP

After talks with Pastukhov in Tiraspol, Grigorii Marakutsa, chairman of the Transdniester Supreme Soviet, said it would be "premature" to convoke the OSCE meeting in Bratislava on 27-28 March, which is scheduled to discuss the Transdniester conflict. That meeting, he said, must await the election of the new Moldovan president, who should then meet with separatist leader Igor Smirnov to agree on the conditions under which negotiations can be resumed, Infotag reported. Valerii Litskay, who is "foreign minister" in the breakaway region's government, said Pastukhov did not discuss any planned visit to Tiraspol by Primakov. Marakutsa said that before Primakov had come out with his proposals for solving the conflict "we had made some progress" on the Ukrainian proposals for "a gradual rapprochement." It is therefore necessary to decide, he said, "on which proposals we should work" before negotiating at the upcoming Bratislava OSCE meeting. MS

...BUT IS EVASIVE ON RUSSIAN TROOP WITHDRAWALS

Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca said following his meeting with Pastukhov in Chisinau that the Duma CIS Committee chairman told him that "too little time" is left for Russia to be able to withdraw all of its weapons from the Transdniester region by the end of this year. Pastukhov also said the withdrawal was made difficult by opposition from the Transdniester leadership to the plan. Rosca cited Pastukhov as saying Russia intends to honor its Istanbul commitments "but it might not be able to do so within the time framework." agreed on at the 1999 OSCE summit, AP reported.

EU COMMISSIONER SAYS BULGARIA'S ACCESSION MAY BE ACCELERATED

Guenter Verheugen, EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, said after talks with Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova in Sofia on 21 March that Bulgaria has made better progress than expected and could complete accession talks by 2004, the English-language daily "Monitor" and Reuters reported. "The message of my visit," Verheugen said, "is that we are ready for Bulgaria, and it is now up to Bulgaria to be ready for us." In order for the talks to be successfully completed, "political stability must be maintained and there must be a strong consensus that European integration is a priority." Instability in neighboring countries must not affect Bulgarian preparations for membership. "We need Bulgaria as an anchor of stability in a strategically very important region" and Bulgaria does "exactly what we want it to do -- act as a factor of stability," Verheugen said. MS

ALBANIAN REFUGEES FROM MACEDONIA TRANSIT BULGARIA

Thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees from Macedonia are transiting Bulgaria on their way to Turkey, "Monitor" reported on 21 March, citing "Sega." The daily wrote that some 2,500 Macedonian citizens have entered Turkey from Bulgaria in the last three days, and more are expected. Bulgarian border police said 1,057 Macedonian citizens entered Bulgarian territory alone on 18 March. The refugees travel mainly in their own cars or by bus. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov on 21 March said Macedonia will be able to quell the Albanian insurgent's uprising by itself, "if extremism and terrorism is not imported from outside" and if supplies and reinforcements for them from Kosova are cut, AP reported. Kostov spoke after telephone conversations with his Macedonian counterpart Ljubco Georgievski and Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia. MS

BULGARIA CUTS ARMY

Bulgaria cut its army from 85,000 to 72,000 troops last year, and is planning an additional reduction of 8,000 in 2001, Defense Ministry official General Lyuben Pandev was cited by AP as saying on 21 March. Under the military reforms aimed at compliance with requirements for NATO accession, Bulgaria intends to reduce its conscript army to 45,000 by 2004, transforming the military into a semiprofessional force. MS

BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT AMENDS LAW ON POLITICAL PARTIES

The parliament on 21 March partially heeded President Petar Stoyanov's veto and amended the recently passed law on political parties. Legislators struck from the law a provision that would have required parties garnering less than 1 percent in the 1997 elections to reregister and prove they have at least 500 members. Stoyanov had sent the law back to the parliament for reconsideration, stating that it was curbing political pluralism, "Monitor" reported. But the lawmakers overrode Stoyanov's objection to anonymous donations, which the law allows for. They limited the amount of a single anonymous donation to 25 percent of the subsidy received by parties from the state. Subsidies are based on the electoral performance of parties in the last elections. MS

TURKISH PARTY IN BULGARIA TO MOVE NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE IN PARLIAMENT

The ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms announced it will move in the parliament a vote of no-confidence in Kostov's cabinet, "Monitor" reported on 21 March, citing the daily "Dnevnik." The movement says the motion derives from its general opposition to the government's policies. Kostov's Union of Democratic Forces lost its majority in the parliament two weeks ago, when seven opponents of the premier split and set up a separate faction. To survive in office, the government now depends on the support of its junior coalition partner, the Popular Union. MS




ALBANIAN REBELS FLEX MUSCLES IN MACEDONIA


By Jolyon Naegele

A week after fighting erupted between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces near the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, the leaders of the insurgency have begun explaining their reasons for resorting to violence, while simultaneously rejecting an ultimatum by Macedonian authorities to surrender or withdraw from positions in the mountains overlooking the town.

A commander of the rebel National Liberation Army (UCK) told reporters by telephone that the rebels intend to advance and open new fronts. The commander, who calls himself "Sokoli," says the guerillas will not leave their positions until their demands have been met. He says they are prepared to defend themselves against any attack. In a 17 March telephone conversation with RFE/RL's Albanian Service, Sokoli said that the rebels are fighting for freedom and equality and are not demanding that Macedonia's borders be changed. He said "We are not attacking. We are defending. If the Macedonian government agrees to resolve the problems by political means, why are they attacking us? They are to be blamed. So far they have not shown any will to negotiate." Sokoli said 80 percent of the guerillas are from Macedonia, and the remainder from Kosova and other regions inhabited by ethnic Albanians.

The shooting and shelling between Albanian rebels in the Sar mountains above the primarily Albanian-populated town of Tetovo and Macedonian security forces first erupted on 14 March and has since grown in intensity, with the Macedonian army using tanks on 20 March for the first time to try to intimidate the rebels. Security forces have also begun patrolling the area with helicopters. But the following day the shooting died down as government forces allowed civilians to leave. In the longer term, however, the Macedonian army, with just 16,000 soldiers, is poorly prepared to deal with the small but rapidly expanding guerilla force of the UCK.

In the capital Skopje, the government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski appears in danger of collapse. The ailing chairman of the ethnic Albanian party in the coalition, Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians, said his party will withdraw from the government if civilians are wounded or if the Macedonian government adopts what he terms "the Yugoslav way of war." By that, he means if the army begins targeting civilians and residential property.

The authorities say they have no intention of letting the ethnic Albanian fighters get the upper hand. In the words of Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski: "we will not lose one meter of our territory." He added that the fighting will be "harsh" and may last for months with "many casualties on both sides."

It is not clear how many ethnic Albanian fighters the army is facing. A member of the UCK's general staff, Sadri Ahmeti, said there are around 2,000 fighters in Tetovo and around 6,000 in the country as a whole. Other reports say there are far fewer.

The Italian daily "La Repubblica" on 20 March quoted Ahmeti as saying the rebels have been training for at least six months "in [the towns and cities of] Gostivar, Skopje, Kumanovo, and Kicevo," all of which have large Albanian populations. He said others are joining their ranks following a recent appeal by the UCK for all able-bodied men.

Ahmeti told the Rome daily "this is a war that is being fought in order to win rights that have been denied for too long -- and all of us Albanians are in it." He said the UCK is ready at any time to take the fighting into the streets of Skopje.

Ahmeti is a veteran of the of the former UCK's (Kosovo Liberation Army's) war against Serb forces in Kosova in 1998 and 1999. He told Reuters that he favors annexing the Albanian-inhabited districts of western Macedonia to Kosova. In his words, "this is my desire and that of my soldiers, but our general staff has the last say on that issue." He denied that the present UCK leadership favors introducing a federal system in Macedonia, saying no decision has yet been reached.

Ahmeti said the UCK already controls "about a dozen villages" on the heights above Tetovo. He added "If we had wanted to capture Tetovo, we would already have done so -- but we want to avoid a civil war that would turn into a bloodbath. We want only to negotiate."

The Bulgarian daily "Monitor" carried an interview on 20 March with Macedonian Prime Minister Georgievski in which he said the Albanian fighters had organized the campaign over a long period of time. He said their logistical support, weapons and organizers come from Kosova and that they number from 500 to 1,000.

In Georgievski's words: "The international community is afraid of acknowledging that the current situation in Macedonia is the result of the spread of the Kosovo crisis [because] its admission would make it clear that the NATO intervention [two years ago] and the policy of the international community have failed to produce results." Georgievski ruled out talks with the Albanian fighters. He said: "No one is considering starting such talks. Our only wish is to root out terrorism."

But Xhaferi, the chief of the Albanian party in the Georgievski government, disagreed. He told the Macedonian government news agency MIA the crisis has what he called an internal character. He said the Albanian fighters' key demand is to change the Macedonian Constitution to give Albanians equal status with Macedonians as a "state-forming" people and to place the Albanian language on par with Macedonian as an official language.


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